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Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2002 / 13 Kislev, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Seeking a Jewish Agenda

Commitment to principle, not partisanship should be community's political priority | A week after the Republican victory in the 2002 congressional elections, some people are still crying in their beer

Conspicuous among them are the many liberal Jews who still act as if the old joke about Judaism consisting of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in was actually true.

The grief is palpable in some quarters, with the usual hyperbole about the Republican "barbarians" being at the gate being thrown around with impunity as the GOP gained control of both Houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1954.

Democrats must be accorded their moment of grief at President Bush's victory, though the rest of us - no matter whom we supported - would take them a bit more seriously if they dropped their doom-and-gloom predictions about the "evil" Republicans being a threat to American democracy.

That said, there is no getting around the fact that many American Jews are still reliable supporters - and funders - of the Democrats. Though this affection is by no means as monolithic as it once was, there is no denying that the cliche about Jews and Democrats still has a great deal of truth to it.

The 51 Republican votes in the incoming U.S. Senate will allow President Bush to select federal judges, not to mention a Supreme Court justice or two, with fewer constraints in the next two years.

That scares the Jews who regard support for abortion rights as the No. 1 domestic issue. Coupled with those who see any deviation from the most strict interpretation of the separation of religion and state, most liberal Jews clearly see the Republican takeover of the Senate as a major calamity.

For hard-core liberals, who are just waking up to the fact that Bush is no accidental presidential dummy, close combat with the White House on a broad array of issues is unavoidable. No one expects the alphabet-soup coalition of liberal Jewish groups to give up their advocacy on these and other issues. But rather than making some of these losing fights the core of the Jewish agenda, the organized Jewish world needs to think carefully about the issues where genuinely Jewish interests - as opposed to those that are merely liberal or partisan Democratic -- require action.

To help that debate along, here are two suggestions: one obvious, one not so obvious for the Jewish community to concentrate its energies in the next two years.


The obvious issue is Israel.

In the past two years since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's generous peace offer and answered him with a terror war, American Jews have largely responded positively to the crisis.

Nationally, hundreds of millions have been raised for Israel emergency funds and when called to attend public rallies for the Jewish state, the turnouts have been surprisingly strong.

But for those who think that American Jews can afford to relax their efforts on this issue, the message is: Wake up. Though the 108th Congress that will convene in Washington in January will be even more pro-Israel than its predecessors, the dangers that lurk ahead are not inconsiderable.

A new Israeli government will be elected in late January. Since it will probably be led by the leader of the Likud - either Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or former premier and current Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will be subjected to a new campaign of vilification from the Arab world and its European allies.

Pressure on the Bush administration to make the "Arab street" and its European backers feel better about the impending campaign against Iraq will be intense.

Though the president's instincts on Middle East issues seem good, those of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell are not. While either Sharon or Bibi will do their best to avoid a conflict with Washington, don't expect either one to make concessions to the terror regime run by the Palestinian Authority. It will be up to American Jews, assisted ably by our conservative Christian allies, to make it clear to Bush that the democratically elected government of Israel should be allowed to make its own decisions on issues that affect the security of its people.

At the same time, Jewish leaders will have to be careful that they don't get blindsided by Jewish left-wingers who are uncomfortable supporting an Israel run by the right. The undertone of dissent against what Jewish Sharon-bashers call the "lockstep" approach is barely audible today, but it is growing.

Left-wing groups like Peace Now are already floating proposals citing threats to Israeli democracy. While some of their issues are worth discussing, their main complaint with Israeli democracy is that their side is about to lose another election, and they are looking to Washington to redress that defeat. Thwarting this attempt to divide the community is crucial.


Less obvious is a domestic political issue that has garnered lots of comment in the secular press but little attention from the Jewish world: immigration.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have been subjected to a steady stream of demagoguery on the issue of immigrants rights. Sensible persons share in the outrage over the mistakes made by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that contributed to the 9/11 catastrophe. But this concern has largely diverted us from the fact that the greatest failure on this case was the massive intelligence failure by the CIA and FBI, and their lack of coordination with each other and other agencies.

The fact that one of the Washington snipers was an illegal immigrant has only added fuel to the fire.

Immigrant-bashing, often by some who have recently arrived here themselves, has a long and unsavory history in this country. But those who have been carried along on this wave forget that immigrants strengthen our economy and are overwhelmingly loyal to America.

The INS is in desperate need of reform and better management, and governmental intelligence agencies need a free hand to investigate real - as opposed to imagined - threats to our security, such as those from radical Muslim groups and their more mainstream apologists.

But the Jewish community, along with other persons of goodwill, needs to stand its ground in the coming year as proposals to make the already long and arduous process of legally entering this country even more complex. In particular, restrictions on the entry of refugees and those seeking asylum from persecution abroad are under attack.

Members of the next Congress, including the Democrats, will be tempted to please the always-present constituency of anti-immigrant know-nothings. But attacking this largely powerless group will do nothing to protect America. Defending them will be in the best tradition of Jewish concern for the needy, as well as in the best interests of our country.

Taking a stand on these two key issues will be the best political investment Jewish groups can make.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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